Monday, May 2, 2011

Hats--Oh, My!

Princess Eugenie made quite a statement at the royal wedding this past week when she wore what one blogger labeled, "a doorknocker adorned with an octopus."

The Princess is only one in a very long line of women who sported noteworthy headwear. Ladies'hats have been the cause of com
ment and controversy for centuries.

In the 19th century, for example, hats played a role in the founding of Audubon Magazine!

In 1886, a devoted (and ultimately outraged) birder hiked from his uptown Manhattan office to the heart of the women's fashion district on 14th Street, tallying the stuffed birds on the hats of passing women as he walked. He counted parts or entire bodies of three bluebirds, two red-headed woodpeckers, nine Baltimore orioles, five blue jays, twenty-one common terns, a saw-whet owl, and a prairie hen. In two afternoon trips he listed 174 birds from forty different species … all of them “victims of fashion.” Gull, tern, heron, and egret populations were especially affected by the fashion craze involving avian accents.

In 1897, Harper’s Bazaar reported, "That there should be an owl or ostrich left with a single feather apiece hardly seems possible." More than birds adorned hats in the those days. Fruit, flowers, furs, and even mice and small reptiles nestled atop fashionable

ladies' heads.Believe me ... I looked. I never did find a photo of a period hat with a "small reptile" ...

although I wonder what we'd see if we had a view of the other side of the creation on the left. Plenty of room for a menagerie. Still, I'm thinking small reptiles just didn't really catch on.

When researching Nora’s Ribbon of Memories, I grew increasingly impressed with the artistry and skill required to be a successful milliner. My main character, Nora (a runaway who works in an 'establishment of ill repute' for a while as a housekeeper) eventually becomes a milliner. At one point, her new employer pulls out a “lightweight buckram frame,” to use as a base for a new creation, and Nora wonders aloud, “How do you turn that thing into a hat?” The milliner goes on to show Nora how its done, “We cover the frame with … bombazine. With a black velvet bow on this side, and a black ostrich feather curving up across the top, it’ll be stunning.”

Another character in the book, Dr. Maude Allbright, is described as someone who "may not have been a slave to fashion ... " but was "definitely a slave to hats." Still, Dr. Allbright eschews the idea of dead birds as adornment.“Every red-tailed hawk in the county will be dive-bombing me if I wear that,” she scoffs, pointing to a French creation sporting three gray birds perched on the crown.

Dr. Allbright orders her hat with “posies instead of dead birds,” and especially likes “a large-brimmed hat entirely camouflaged in felt-gray plumes and curled blue and yellow striped ribbon.”

In the end, Nora opens her own business in fictional Millersburg, Nebraska.

One very helpful resource I discovered while working on Nora was a book called The Female Economy; the Millinery and Dressmaking Trade, 1860-1930. I close with hat history ... and some photos of imaginative head-coverings from my collection of vintage photographs. You'll notice feathers and plumes in abundance. Who knows ... maybe there's a small reptile in there somewhere.

"When a girl enters a milliner's establishment, she must give three or four month’s time to learning the business. After that, she receives five dollars a week; and in some instances, as she improves, her wages are increased to fifteen."

"The dressmaker’s assistant looks down on the factory hand … she works with ‘fine things’ and interacts with ‘ladies’ …"

“No woman wants a hat like any other hat that has ever been made.”

“It is the retailer’s duty to curb the extravagance of young women who cannot afford expensive hats, and thus help their customer’s avoid paths that have led many girls to ruin.” The Illustrated Milliner

"Last evening Sallie Howe was here. We were all talking about bonnets. They all wish me to have some kind of bright flower inside my bonnet. Sarah and Lizzie wish me to have a Geranium scarlet, white strings with a scarlet edge, not to have purple by any means, they say … I wish to know what you like. I do not think pink is becoming … They say I must not have white or purple …”

"[The customer said] 'When I put my bonnet on and looked into the glass, I hardly knew myself it made me look so handsome' … disaster could have just as easily been the result … they expect us to remake them in spite of nature."

"Failure in millinery was most often caused by doing too much business on credit …etiquette prevented the tradeswoman from pressing her case.”

Hats still make a statement ... I do wonder what Mrs. Howe of Burlingame, Kansas, (whose business card appears above) would say about ...

Cheers!.........................................from Stephanie


  1. Hi Stephanie:

    I have a theory about women’s hats through history. At times when women had very few opportunities to express their creativity and individuality, when they were given a public opportunity to do so, they took advantage of this opportunity with a passion.

    All those hats, each had to be different, are not silly; they are women saying: “I am creative and I am unique; please look at me as an individual.”

    After the war, when women received more freedom, the hats faded. And in the 1960’s, there was so much freedom, hats almost went extinct.

    When I look at the two princesses in their crazy hats, I see the same thing. They may have a discredited mother and they may be second rate royals, but they will be noticed! And by God, it worked.


  2. Hi Stephanie -

    I agree with Vince. Those hats are designed to get attention.

    I think about their weight and the task of keeping them anchored. Back when I wore hats, I preferred more classic, modest varieties.

    Susan :)

  3. Great point about "getting noticed." I love hats, but I'm an introvert and I finally quit wearing hats to church because I hated being stared at :-) least I FELT like I was being stared at. I'd say with some hats that the joke is on the observer. I wonder if some of the ladies from history were smiling inside at the reactions they got. As to hats fading from use ... I have no anecdotal evidence or otherwise, but I have wondered if hats also faded because it became easier to keep hair clean and styled so there was less need to hide it to look decent.

  4. Hi Stephanie:

    There might be a test for your theory of hats hiding hair. How popular were hats in the Roaring '20’s when women adopted short hair styles? Given greater freedom and shorter hair, hats should have dropped in popularity. Did flappers wear hats? I really don’t know.


  5. These are so great! I love to wear hats (but not Princess Eugenie's, I'm afraid). I think we've lost a lot of romance and fun by being so practical in only using hats to keep the rain and sun off.